Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Business and convergent technologies 4 – virtual reality in search of the killer app

Posted in business and convergent technologies by Timothy Platt on October 27, 2009

In one sense this posting is about finding a specific application program or category of them that is of outstanding value and priority to us end users. When enough of us come to see a new program or approach as being particularly attractive to buy into, that can and does create a viral marketing-driven cycle of purchase, use, networking with others in our communities about it and back as further increased production and sales.

It makes a lot more sense however, at least longer term, to think of this as finding and reinforcing a virtuous cycle that drives the evolution of new software products and services. That is because the drive to innovate to keep market share virtually always means pressure to refine and improve on products and services currently offered. Businesses that do not both keep up with and strive to stay ahead of the competition in what they offer fall behind and eventually fail in the marketplace.

That is all pretty abstract so to bring it down to earth, I want to start with a fairly well known example of this process – the co-evolution of computer games and the personal computer. I will then use that as a model for what I will argue to be the pattern that virtual reality will follow too. And I will also try to present a case that virtual reality and its widespread adaptation will diverge from this case study example in some very specific and important ways, and that based on the fundamental nature of the interactive web.

First, however, I want to present the case that computer games have driven the rapid development of personal computers for a number of key features in their basic specification, and computer games have driven several trends in software development as the game producers have pushed the envelop in what any given current state of the art hardware could be brought to do.

Evolving software, with its ever increasing need for memory, storage capacity and processor speed creates market pressure on the hardware manufacturers to take what they offer to a next generation step. To be successful, that next hardware generation has to meet and at least incrementally exceed any current basic requirements that this evolving software requires. After all, we buy software that helps us meet our needs and priorities and we buy the hardware that supports the software that we need for that. And gaming software has most actively pressed the envelope for hardware performance through several key stages in the evolution of the personal computer as users looked for the best graphics and then graphics and sound, the fastest, most involving action and the capacity to play at higher levels of realism and action with others and not just the machine.

Other forms of software have, of course contributed to this pressure, and here is where legacy system support comes in for offerings like office productivity software – bloatware when this is taken to an all too common extreme. That certainly taxes memory capacity, as does the addition of seemingly endless feature add-ons for software like Microsoft’s Word, Excel or Powerpoint. But gaming software has probably had greater across the board impact on hardware development than any other single software category, for the personal computers across their history.

In anticipation of the next part of this series where I will pick up on the virtual reality side of this story, I will argue that this pattern applies to the online experience per se at least as much as it does for computer gaming, and virtual reality offers the prospect of bringing the user experience of connecting online to a whole new level of involvement. There, computer gaming and its story, and virtual reality and its possible development mesh very closely on a lot of points but there are some interesting places where fundamental differences enter in as well and that will set some basic parameters as to how virtual reality will evolve in the marketplace.

2 Responses

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  1. Damona said, on October 27, 2009 at 5:24 pm

    Hi Timothy,

    Non-Apple PCs are the hardware most often associated with computer gaming. What are you thoughts about how Apple has handled the development of their computers because power gaming has never been their focus? It almost seems that Apple’s hardware development has been directed mainly at iPod and iPhone growth more than their Mac computers. Do you see them entering the power gaming market (I’ve read some online articles that claim they are moving mostly into games from the app store rather than power gaming), and if so, how will that alter their hardware?

    • Tim Platt said, on October 28, 2009 at 11:16 am

      Hi Damona and thanks for a very interesting comment regarding PCs and gaming. The first thing that came into my mind when I read it was that gaming software comes primarily from third party developers, and I almost simultaneously found myself thinking of a reply that Willie Sutton gave to a reporter once when asked why he robbed banks – “because that’s where the money is.”

      Here, software developers primarily use a surrogate metric for money with market share but the basic principle holds. Software developers get paid in part, and often significant part based on the numbers of copies of their software sold, and that correlates to market share.

      That said, we are still left with the question of what Apple is doing, both now and in its strategic planning. My guess is that you are right if you see Apple putting more of its effort and attention into handhelds, and providing encouragement for third party software developers to write code for them there. And if this is the case, their basic gaming support strategy for promoting development of resources that could be used on their devices is going to be highly app oriented.

      Yes, they will still work to keep office oriented, graphics, browser and a host of other software available for their desktops and laptop computers and they will continue to upgrade their operating systems for these platforms, and with both major and minor updates. They are happy, I am sure when a software development company does add Apple OS compatibility into their power gaming offerings. But my guess is that they see their best future, and certainly as a holder of significant market share in those smaller devices and they are probably going to game strategize and implement accordingly. That, after all is where the money is. (No, I am not calling software developers bank robbers – just citing Willie S as a role model for effectively placing business development efforts into the most profit-intensive areas.)

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